In October 2011, Brava Wine Company took the first group of travelers through Istria to experience the beautiful wines and the culinary riches. It’s also truffle season and time for the olive harvest, so we had a very full weekend of amazing food and wine! A similar trip will be repeated again several times in October.
The Regent Esplanade was once again taken over by wine lovers. Though it was mainly offered to people in the trade and some guests, the atmosphere was as buzzed up as ever. Maybe it is in fact these folks who know how to create the buzz.
Winemakers came from Istria to bring a mini-version of the VinIstra fair to Zagreb, presenting their 2011 Malvazijas (along with another wine or two in many cases).
A highlight for me was meeting and tasting the wines from Ivan Damjanić of Damjanić Vino, located just outside of Poreć. His Malvasija bore lots of fresh fruit, including green apple and ripe peach, and when I came back later in the afternoon to taste his recently-winning Borgonja (Gamay) I found that he’s quite adept at the reds too. I look forward to visiting his cellar in an upcoming visit in March.
Many of the wines today were still a little on the harsh side, hopefully they’ll mellow a bit before release, around Easter. But 2011 holds tons of promise in the bottle, considered to be one of the strongest vintages in recent history.
The snow was a bit of a surprise, especially since the day before in Zagreb we were in summer clothes. But driving from Zagreb to Istria the night before the rest of my group arrived, snow and sleet was falling furiously and showing no sign of letting up. Meanwhile the temps started dropping into the danger zone of 32 degrees Fahrenheit (or 0 degrees Celsius). We pushed through slowly and carefully only to discover as we often do, on the other side of the Učka tunnel, windy but clear weather.
The ominous warnings proved false. By the next day as the 25 guests were arriving on this family-friendly wine trip, the clouds had broken and the sun was warming our skin through our light fall jackets and sweaters. It was perfect timing. We gathered in our cars and caravanned through Istria’s beautiful two-lane roads which wind lazily through miles and miles of vineyards, olive groves and the hills and valleys with their quaint villages and towns. We arrived in Livade at Zigante Tartufi for the kick-off of the day’s Truffle Festival, featuring many culinary delights featuring the magnificent truffle. We tasted wine, admittedly of varying degrees of quality, and sampled the many different truffle offerings, from olive oils to cheeses and salamis. We all walked away from the fair with shopping bags of whichever truffle-studded treasures we decided to purchase to take home before enjoying a light lunch of Fuži pasta, an Istrian specialty of hand-rolled pasta tubes. In this case the pasta was served with a cream sauce, and you guessed it, more truffles. We washed it down with Istria’s local gem of a white wine, Malvazija.
From there we headed to Misal winery, owned by the Peršurić family just outside of Višnjan. Winemaker Ana Peršurić was our delightful guide and hostess, taking us on an insightful tour and fantastic tasting in their unique tasting room (the tasting counter is an island in the middle room, shaped like a Champagne cork and, in fact, partially made of cork). Since we ate such a light lunch at Zigante it was lucky for us that I had loads of my favorite American kettle chips in my car, having stocked up on a recent trip to an American grocery store. Because of this good fortune, one of my favorite wine pairings of all times manifested before us (queue the choir of angels): Champagne (or in this case, Champagne-style sparkling wine) and POTATO CHIPS! It’s heaven, people. If you haven’t tried it, give it a shot.
Well, sparkling wine has a funny habit of whetting your palate, so from there we headed to dinner at our family’s favorite pizza joint in Poreć. From start to finish at this little neighborhood spot you can watch them roll out the dough, toss it ever so cavalierly into the air, slap it down, spread it out and cover it just about anything your heart desires before throwing it in a blazing wood-fired oven. It was delicious, casual and perfect for our hungry group. Naturally, a little after party formed once we got back to the apartments, and then to bed, for another day of food and wine was ahead.
On these wine trips I always like to leave the morning free for folks to enjoy as they wish, whether it’s hammering out a work-related proposal (boo) or taking a walk on the water’s edge toward the old city of Poreć (hooray).
So, after some time to ourselves, we commenced at noon for an early lunch and wine tasting at a Borgonja, a local Konoba (a.k.a. traditional restaurant) in Višnjan. This place not only takes great care of their guests, but delivers great value and serves some of the best traditional cuisine in the area. Rich, hearty food greeted us immediately upon arrival, starting with a huge helping of Fuži pasta, this time served in a rich gravy of beef goulash (gulaš) with loads of fresh, homemade bread. It was delicious and quite a meal in itself, but we had to slap on our game faces as the next course was soon to roll out. This one featured a locally made sausage, served atop a bed of sauerkraut along with a pork chop and roasted potatoes. Yeah, all of that on one plate. Needless to say, we did our best and enjoyed every bit. Our friendly and gracious hosts checked in on us every step of the way. Peter Poletti, a local winemaker and good friend, joined us for this ample lunch and poured his fresh, flavorful wines which did a great job of cutting through the richness of the meal.
Well, we were in it to win it on this fine day, so we tossed back quick espressos and took dessert on the road with us as we headed to Peter’s winery in Višnjan. There we enjoyed Borgonja’s fabulous smile-enducing Fritule (little fried donut-hole treats they serve here, especially in the cold weather) and Kroštule, a simple but tasty local dessert of flour rolled out into ribbons, tied into knots, fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Peter accompanied the treats with a glass of his Rosella, a special dessert wine made from Muškat Ruža, a unique grape in the Muskat family which is especially difficult to produce, given that it’s such a challenge in the vineyard. This pretty pink wine was spot on with the sweet treats from the restaurant.
We packed up again and headed out, this time to see olive oil production underway nearby. This year’s weather created early harvests all around, both in the vineyards and olive groves, and this provided us the opportunity to see fresh olives being brought to press and make their way through the production line. It was a really fascinating experience, and we all lined up to buy lots of the dark green oil which had just been pressed yesterday.
From here we headed to Roxanich Winery, a producer of unique wines made in a cask-matured, aged style. These wines are full of character and this is arguably one of the best producers in all of Croatia. Their style in contrast with the fresh, young wines made by Poletti proved that there are many ways to make wine on this charming peninsula. We had the opportunity to taste the newly released 2008 vintage, including the premier of Ines in White, a beautiful blend of seven white grape varietals.
However, we decided that enough wasn’t indeed enough on this day, and we made dinner reservations at the new restaurant in the old city of Poreć called Divino. It’s the antithesis of Borgonja’s rustic, traditional, meat-based menu, instead serving elegant seafood, freshly caught, beautifully prepared and presented in a very luxe restaurant setting. We were served with finesse by the well-appointed staff and we struggled to make a selection from their smart, extremely well-chosen wine list featuring Istrian favorites like Clai and international gems as well. We finally decided upon the Trapan Malvazija Ponete as the main wine with our dinner, since this was a producer we weren’t able to visit on this trip, due to their location in Istria’s southern region, near Pula. Indeed the group loved this wine, so much that we ordered multiple bottles to enhance our meal and celebrate our last night together. It worked so well with all of our seafood dishes that we vowed to make the pilgrimage to Trapan’s winery on our next visit to the ever delightful Istria.
And it was unanimously agreed. There will be a next time.
In May I was tasting my way through Istria’s local wine event, VinIstra, with some other wine professionals when I ran into a friend who took my arm and told me there was somebody I had to meet. He introduced me to Bruno Trapan, a young winemaker from Pula who has been working steadily since his winery’s inception in 2003 on producing terroir expressive wines from this area in southern Istria. He led me through a tasting of both his own wines and those of his friend Ernest Tolj of Saints Hills Winery. Notes follow on the Trapan wines.
Later, in June, I was back in Istria and made the trek to visit the winery with a few others. He’s got a newly built winery with a very fun, modern tasting room, which cleverly includes a kitchen so he can host lively wine dinners. We visited his vineyards, 11 hectares of beautiful, healthy vines planted in Teran, Malvasia, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. Many went into the ground this year and will hopefully be mature enough for use in 2013. He’s implementing organic viticulture, and employing microorganic organisms borrowed from the principles of biodynamics. He’s definitely onto something. His wines, as he claims, have been improving from vintage to vintage. Which means the future’s looking really bright for this determined, energetic winemaker.
Trapan Ponente 2010– 100% Malvasia. Soft with aromas of green apple and minerality. The acidity is more broad than focused, a great cocktail wine and food wine both. I’m always drinking this wine at my favorite sushi joint in Zagreb and it’s a grand slam with both the sashimi and some of their more eclectic fusion dishes. A great bottle for everyday drinking, just chill it and kill it.
Trapan “Uroboros” Cuvee 2009– 50% Malvasia, 50% Chardonnay. This blend is mostly aged in Acacia wood, sur lie 10 months. 13.6% alc. Flavors are green and spicy both, an interesting combination. The vineyards are near to the sea, and I picked up some salty minerality on this wine that was reminiscent of a good Albariño from Spain. Creamy, savory, rich, round and really interesting in general. This was one of my favorite wines overall at the VinIstra tasting. Estimated aging potential 5-10 years. Would be perfect with seafood or poultry, but I bet this baby could definitely hold its own against more assertively-flavored dishes as well, like a spicy curry. Props.
Trapan Rubi Rosé 2010– The kitchen sink blend comprised of Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Teran. Aged sur lie 7 months. It’s got this neon-salmon color, and if it was served in a martini glass I’d for sure think it was a Cosmo. It leads off with primary aromas of strawberry and brioche. The palate is clean and fresh, but congruent with his style, it doesn’t sting with acidity. Flavors echo the nose, with watermelon and even cantaloupe coming through. Despite the shocking color, it’s more subtle on the palate, and that’s exactly what I want on a bottle of wine like this. Great summer/spring sipper or would be a good compliment to salads, egg-based dishes or light summer fare. Easily the kind of wine you can open a few bottles of on the terrace and forget to go back to work.
Trapan “Nigra Virgo” Cabernet Sauvignon 2009– This wine shows exactly what can be done with Cabernet Sauvignon in the right hands. Classic, textbook even, oak kissed but not overdone. That’s due to the balance between stainless steel and oak (50/50%) during the aging process, and the restraint practiced in the winery. Gorgeous blackberry, cassis, cigar box and anise show up on the palate. Tannins are incredibly well-integrated on this seamless wine. Perfect for fans of this new world and old world alike, it’s the wine that says “let’s all be friends.” Cab lovers rejoice, this is a winner. Aging potential…10 years? Good luck resisting the urge to yank the cork for that long.
Driving back from a four day visit to Istria today, I visited winemaker Dimitri Brečević, producer of Piquentum wines. We met at his winery, located just outside of Buzet where he shared his story with me. Born and raised in France, he went on to study enology in Bordeaux, which he followed up by working in wineries there and elsewhere in the world. He is young, passionate and honest, all qualities which I think will be to his advantage as he blazes his trail as a winemaker in Istria. True of many of the wines I favor, he is making wines in a natural way (or they say in Croatia, bio) and will have even more control of the wines when he owns all of the vineyards his fruit comes from. Piquentum is still young, 2006 was the first vintage and they are growing their winery slowly and methodically. The winery as it is now is really cool. It’s a repurposed water cistern which had been used by the Italian army, with rounded ceilings (Nicolas Joly approves) and an inherently cool temperature. The winery is fairly incognito from the outside, just a few big doors and an unadorned pergola mark it’s entrance.
Grapes used in production are Teran, Refošk and Malvazija, and these are the grapes which Dimitri will continue to use and promote. He dreams of Istria being as terrior driven and specialized in its native grapes as some of the other famed wine regions in the world, like Burgundy for example. To this end, and aligned with the principles of a few other great producers in Istria like Roxanich and Clai, he is cultivating and using his own indigenous yeasts so that there is minimal intervention to get in the way of true terroir expression. Barrels are employed, but only aged barrels from Bordeaux which are adding texture to the wines but not imparting any strong aromas or flavors. The reds are unfiltered, thus enhancing the richness of the wine.
Blanc10 (Malvazija 2010 – tank sample, will be bottled in June) was bright and fresh, with aromas of wet stone, green apple and honeysuckle, all subtly woven together. The palate had broad, sweeping acidity which instantly made me crave sushi. Takenoko, take note- I’ll be requesting that this gem joins your wine list. This wine, in 2010, is simply called “Piquentum blanc” on the label. 100% Malvazija, aged sur lie.
Teranum09 (Teran 2009 -barrel sample): Lush aromas come out of this gorgeous purple-colored glass of wine. All sorts of wet earth, forest floor, crushed black fruit and violet. The palate is a bit more lean and even mineral. Again, broad acidity sweeps the palate and this wine is looking for food, and some serious food at that. Labeled as Piquentum Teranum in the marketplace, this baby is all Teran. Dimitri recommends, and I agree, the Teran would benefit from being decanted.
I’ve got nothing but good to say about Clai.
They arranged for me a visit to their cellar at 10:30 on a Sunday morning, per my unusual request. I had been eager to try these wines and learn about them for some time, as they had been recommended to me as another of these “natural” wine producers that I’m so fond of, even having been called biodynamic, maybe accurately or not. So, on that Sunday morning my wish was granted and I parked my car across the family residence and winery.
I was met by Martina, daughter of Giorgio and Vesna Clai, who led me into the bottling room to meet her father. He took us on a tour and spoke to me about his philosophy. They have 10 hectares under vine and olive trees, all grown and cared for biologically, which is the word he prefers over biodynamic. This speaks to his care of the land, and includes such things as using compost teas for fertilizer and harvesting according to the calendar. He is a firm believer that all wines are made in the vineyard, and are to be completely and utterly representative of the land from which they came. It is most important to him to represent the terroir, climate and finally the serious, respectful winemaker. He believes the winemaker’s duty is to carry on with what nature has given him and complete the task of making grapes into wine. He says that you simply have to represent these variables, and don’t penalize or change the wines in the cellars. In his native Italian he tells me about his process for cultivating and harvesting his own yeasts, that which is growing on the grapes in the vineyard. Of these grapes, he harvests a small bunch or piede di partenza, the yeast starter. Using these wild, indigenous yeasts completes the expression of terroir even more completely, creating what he lovingly refers to as sincere wines.
His soil is unlike the dark red soil I’ve seen elsewhere in Istria. His is white, and very mineral rich. He later let me take a bit for my little terroir collection.
In the cellar we tasted:
Malvazija 2010– Macerated on the skins for 2 months. The color was cloudy, naturally as a barrel sample, but also because he is doing no filtering or fining. The aromas and flavors carried an intense aroma of apricot, golden raisin and pineapple. Acidity was soft and round, really nice mouthfeel to this wine.
Ottocento– This is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon, harvested together and fermented together. Malvasia was added to the blend after it was harvested a bit later. The color is again cloudy and almost an amber-gold color. Everything this wine is intense, from the color to the nose to the palate and beyond. To me it was reminiscent of grapefruit and candied orange, with pervasive brown spice notes. It was incredibly long and lush with velvety acidity. Delicious.
Ottocento Red– This was a blend of Merlot, Teran, and Cabernet Sauvignon, with Merlot carrying the majority of this year’s blend. The color was some kind of electric magenta! It was gorgeous in the glass. The palate was all floral, rose petals and violet with some crushed berries in the background. Absolutely gorgeous.
Refosco 2008 was a favorite. It had gorgeous blueberry, crushed raspberry aromas and flavors that evolved every time I came near my glass. At times I smelled and tasted cotton candy, anise, candied raspberries and blackberries. For Giorgio this wine evokes chocolate and fresh mint, and I believe it, as this is a highly complex wine.
Back in the tasting room we tasted some of his bottled wines.
Malvazija Sv. Jakov 2009 – dark gold in color. Baked apricot, fig and notes of white peach and pear. Super lush and round on the palate, this is a stunning wine that would be great with fish.
Ottocento Bijeli 2009– Topaz in color. Aromas and flavors of lemon curd, acacia blossoms, caramel and Clementine. Gorgeous.
We went on to taste the Ottocento Red, the Refosco “Brombonero” which were both fantastic. And finally…
Moscato “Tasel” 2009 . Tasel represents the name of the local soil. The grapes are made here in passimento style, late harvest and dried 1-2 months. They are macerated with the skins and the wine matures for 1-2 years. He is only making this wine in very good vintages. There were huge aromas of orange rind, marmalade, and honey on this dark orange wine. On the palate I was blown away by the freshness of the wine, and further flavors of white pepper and fresh herbs. There is even a slightly spicy component to this wine that makes it really interesting. I thought it was quite amazing. And apparently I’m not the only one, because when I asked to buy some I found it was sold out.
Martina is queen of the distillery here, making artisanal grappas and rakijas. The grappas were each really beautiful, her Komovica which is a blend of all the grape varieties, the komovica s medom which has honey distilled with the grapes, and the travarica, which is her grappa distilled along with herbs. She is also making beautiful rakijas, like the typical sliva (plum), and jabuka (apple). She will make an exciting new grappa in oak from 2009 and a reserve with the Ottocento grapes.
All in all, what they’re doing here is really cutting edge and at the same time really humble, honest and ancient. They’re acting as a true steward of the land, sharing her truest expression and the rest of us lucky enough to simply reap the rewards. Get your hands on a bottle.
I had really amazing time visiting Istria with some girlfriends in early November 2010. Since arriving in Croatia, this has been my first chance to get out and explore the gastronomical scene, and meet the for the first time some producers of wine and delightful culinary treasures. We started out trip on a Sunday, in what is definitely Istria’s “off-season,” at least for the majority of the tourists. Since Lonely Planet rated Istria as the number two top destination for 2011, I’m sure we’ll see this change. The days all started with our cooking classes at the fantastic Radin Gourmet. We had chef Ezio from Le Mandrac restaurant expertly guiding our lessons and leading us through many beautiful courses, often involving fresh caught seafood and the famed Istrian Truffles. The combination of this venue, our hosts- Irina, Larisa and Tony, and such a talented chef made our vacation absolutely fantastic.
During the days we also met with wine producers and had the opportunity to visit some of these wineries in the evening. The first day tasted the wines from Pilato, including the Malvasija, Pinot Bieli, and 2009 Muskat Bielo. Later that evening we went to Kabola Winery. Unfortunately, we did this visit at night and we weren’t able to get a tour of the vineyards, or even see them for that matter. But we were given an expert tour and tasted some really fantastic wines, including the Malvasija Reserve, which is aged 12 months in oak and and the truly unique Malvasija Amphora, in which special, single vineyard grapes get extended maceration on the skins then go into big clay pots (Amphora) buried underground and then into barrel. This particular wine warranted the purchase of a case and particularly inspired my decision to teach a wine class called “An Evening in Istria”- coming on December 7th.
The next day at our culinary classes, we were presented with the wines of Vina Poletti, by owner and winemaker Peter Poletti. He is a really fantastic guy, a few times even driving back to his place a few kilometers away to bring us new things to try. We sampled his brand new olive oils, one a single olive oil made from an Italian olive cultivar , and the other, a blend of an indiginous Croatian varietal and an Italian varietal. He is as fanatical about his oils as he is his wine, and will race to pick all of the olives within 30 minutes of bringing them to the press. He is also a great family guy, and lives by his mission to “work to live, not live to work.” For this reason, he is making only 25, 000 bottles of wine per year and not interested in expanding, although the demand for his wine is greater than his supply. We tasted first the 2009 Poletti Malvasija, clean and unoaked. Just pure, clean fruit shining through on these wines, with a brave streak of acidity. Next we tasted the Teran, a varietal widely planted in Istria, though admitedly not everyone’s favorite because this is a grape with both high acidity and high tannins, making it a little hard to tame and difficult to sip on without some food acting as a companion. His was clean and bright and we all enjoyed it. We followed this with our dessert course and the 2009 Poletti Rossella, made from what he refers to as “red rose muscat,” a unusual cultivar only planted by a small handful of producers. Peter’s is made in what I found to be an off-dry style, not cloyingly sweet and still bearing a fair amount of complexity.
On this evening we visited Radovan, meeting up with Daniela at their home winery in Poreč. This is boutique wine indeed. After a walk through the tank and barrel room we went into the tasting room and tried some really fantastic wines, including their 2009 Malvasija Istarska, 2009 Chardonnay, 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2007 Merlot. Really lovely wines from a small, family owned winery, and they have the awards to prove it- the tasting room is very modest but displays a number of wine bottles bearing medals won at various competitions, most specifically VinIstra, the regional wine competition held in April each year.
The next day, our fourth and final day in Istria, we headed back to Radin for more culinary classes and also joined up with Mato from Roxanich Winery. These are wines of tremendous grace and finess, and of a calibur I had not yet discovered here in Croatia. We started our tasting with the Malvasija Antica, which was a deep golden color and featured heady aromas of dried apricot, acacia honey and orange rind. This wine, like the Kabola Amphora, underwent an extended maceration period as well, a process not often utilized in white wines. Next, with a bold preparation of Sea Bass prepared sous vide we tasted the 2006 Teran “Re,” a gorgeous dark violet wine with all the muscle you’d expect from Teran, but plenty of elegance as well. It definitely featured Teran’s telltale acidity, but here the acid seemed very broad and sweeping instead of harsh and stinging. Flavors and aromas such as blackberry, blueberry, leather, and cinnamon intermingled and tempted. This wine ages 36 months in the barrel, 20 percent in barrique and 80 in large cask. All of Roxanich’s wines are fermented by wild, indigenous yeasts naturally present in the air. Finally, we tasted the 2006 vintage of what Roxanich calls their “Super Istrian,” an obvious play on Italy’s Super Tuscans, and which features a parallel blend, using Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and the indigenious Borgonja (in place of Tuscany’s Sangiovese). This is a powerful but again very refined, complex wine which seems like it could age a century. I wish that we had been able to visit the Roxanich winery, but it was not in the cards for us this time. It’s definitely on my list for the next visit to Istria.
Following our classes and tasting with Roxanich, we were to be taken on a truffle hunt, as it is black truffle season in parts of Istria. Unfortunately, due to all of the rain, we were unable to do this. Instead we met the hunting dogs and proceeded to a wonderful tasting of truffles and truffle products.
Then, for our final evening in Istria, we went to Koslović winery. This is a very modern winery, having undergone several years of renovations, and which are still occurring. They are currently producing 130,000 bottles and will eventually have the capacity to double this. We toured the gravity fed winery and had a few tank samples prior to the seated tasting. We tried the 2009 Malvasija, 2007 Malvasija Reserve from a single vineyard and which was very nice, the 2006 Santa Lucia Malvasija, the off-dry 2008 Muškat, the 2009 Muškat (dessert wine) which had fantastic, gripping acidity and lovely manderine flavors, and the 2008 “Violetta” (Muskat Hamburg) which was a bright pink color and had some pleasant floral notes. After this we tried the 2009 Muškat Ruža (The red rose varietal Poletti also produces) which was very interesting, and the 2006 Passito Muškat, which was a good bottle of wine, with aromas of honey and pear and lush viscosity. This was such a fantastic culinary adventure in Istria, featuring all sorts of culinary amusements like the brand new cloudy olive oils, beautiful prosciutto, black truffles and so much more, all from small producers. Not to mention the fantastic cuisine created in our classes and at local restaurants. I can’t wait to present some of these gems on December 7th!